Ships carry ballast water to maintain stability in rough seas and when sailing without cargo. After a vessel has been unloaded the water is typically pumped into purpose-built tanks onboard. It is then drained during loading at the destination port, bringing ashore organisms which pose environmental and even health risks. This is suspected to have contributed toward a cholera outbreak in Peru that affected over 10,000 people.
The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments aims to find a solution to the issue. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) introduced the accord in 2004, obliging shipowners to treat or safely replace their ballast water. The hope is that this reduces the amount of living invasive species released into coastal and harbor waters.
Turmoil in the industry
However, the treaty will only come into effect a year after it has been signed by a minimum of 30 countries and at least 35 percent of the global trade fleet. 34.8 percent have signed so far, but it is still unclear whether the target will be met this year.
A mood of uncertainty is spreading through shipping companies. Should they fit all new ships with treatment facilities? Retrofit their fleets without delay? Or simply wait? Modifications are expensive, even without accounting for operating costs. Only a small number of shipowners have installed treatment facilities so far – fewer still have got them up and running, as operation is not obligatory.
To further complicate matters, even the companies with IMO-certified systems cannot be certain they will meet future regulations. Indeed, the United States Coast Guard has set its own strict standards and intends to monitor compliance with them along the country’s coastlines.
How effective are existing technologies?
There are several ways to treat ballast water, most commonly electro-chemically and mechanically—through electrolysis and UV radiation. The problem is that although the IMO has certified more than 50 systems based on these technologies, none have met the US Coast Guard’s lofty requirements. In fact, no technique currently exists to exterminate all types of germs in an economical and ecological manner.
A new approach could revolutionize treatment
SKF is working on an entirely new concept. The company has analyzed the weaknesses of existing processes and on the basis of its findings is developing a prototype that is able to purify water from anywhere in the world. The technical details are confidential; what can be revealed is that it cleverly combines ultrasonic and UV functions. Ultrasound is normally used for surface cleaning, but SKF will deploy the new method for disinfecting.
The project is the talk of the industry, having caught the attention of shipping industries worldwide. The product is expected to have been certified and on the market by 2019.